The story of Helaman’s 2060 stripling warriors (the subject of Sunday School lesson #33) is another of the most cited and, I assume, the more beloved among young men and boys. However, the main idea broached in the lesson, that these young men were righteous and obeyed “every word of command with exactness,” could easily be lost in the midst of their military valor. The stripling warriors, like many of those who serve in military service around the world today, are indeed heroes—but, Eliza R. Snow observes that there are other, more valuable ways to be a hero:
The 10 chapters in this week’s Sunday School lesson (#31) are among the most exciting in the Book of Mormon—at least if you are a 10-year-old boy. They tell the story of Captain Moroni, the battles he fought for freedom, and his “Title of Liberty.” Of course, even for adults they are important chapters, detailing a struggle for liberty and raising the kind of questions that so many in the world have to face, even today, when addressing what kind of government their country needs. Even in most western democracies, the issues of liberty have at least a peripheral connection to what we choose at the ballot box. After all, if it is possible to choose a democracy, then it must also be possible to choose not to have one!
As Alma talks with his son Corianton in Alma 40-42, he realizes that Corianton does not understand some basic elements of the Plan of Salvation. From what Alma teaches him, we can surmise that Corianton doesn’t understand that all will be resurrected, that each person will be resurrected according to their words in this life (the righteous to happiness and the wicked to misery), and the roles that justice and mercy play in the great plan of happiness. From the context, it is clear that all these teachings were in response to Corianton’s misdeeds while serving a mission, a similar situation to that described in this week’s poem.
Alma 36 to 39 contain Alma’s advice to his three sons, Helaman, Shiblon and Corianton, which led me to the idea of parental advice—something that usually accumulates bit by bit over years rather than all in one block as Alma seems to have done with his sons. Of this advice, perhaps the most famous, especially when it comes to Mormon literature, is the advice given to Corianton and the reason for that advice. Corianton’s story has been the source for dozens of literary works — so much so that encountering a character in a Mormon story named “Cory” should automatically make you think of Alma 39.
Today Alma’s discourse on the development of faith in Alma 32 is well known among Mormons and widely referred to on almost any discussion of faith. The “nourishing” of seeds and plants is, of course, common in poetry — its the comparison of seeds and growth with faith or the word that is important to Mormonism. I haven’t researched whether or not this discourse was used frequently like it is today. But there are elements of the idea and description in the chapter which can be found in some early Mormon poetry. Parley P. Pratt used it in the following poem.
The chief character in Alma 30, the first of the two chapters in lesson 27, is Korihor, the anti-Christ, who preaches, among other things, the contradictory ideas that there will be no Christ and that the future can’t be known. By the end of the chapter Korihor has begged for a sign and been struck dumb. He then admits that he has been deceived by the devil. While the earliest Mormon writers didn’t face many anti-Christs (at least not those who stated as much like Korihor did), they certainly faced those they considered just as bad—such as Missouri Governor Lilburn W. Boggs. And Church members weren’t always circumspect with their feelings.
The Anti-Nephi-Lehies, the focus of Book of Mormon lesson #26, have to be the most unusual group in the Book of Mormon. Their choice of pacifism is unequaled in scripture, except possibly by the people of Enoch. While the lesson concentrates on their conversion and how that led them to turn to pacifism, I think the fact that they chose pacifism is instructive, something that should make us all ponder what really matters. Perhaps their pacifist views, along with the troubles in Missouri, influenced William Wines Phelps, one of the first poets of Mormonism, leading him to write the following condemnation of war:
Among the most beloved figures in the Book of Mormon are the four sons of Mosiah, who, after their conversion, take leave of their native land and homes and serve missions among the Lamanites. Where missionaries today serve for just a couple of years or less, the sons of Mosiah served a total of 14 years which I assume (the record doesn’t say exactly) was much longer than anyone expected. Instead, I suspect, they and their friends and family must have wondered if they would even return alive, for, after all, the Lamanites were the enemies of the people of Nephi.
One of the most stunning acts of persecution in the scriptures has to be the attack on the believers in Ammonihah described in Alma 14. Those who have heeded the words of Alma and Amulek, men, women and children, are taken by the mob, bound and cast into fire, along with their scriptures while Alma and Amulek are forced to watch. In consternation, the missionaries face the problem of evil in a very personal and immediate way and Alma is constrained by the spirit not to intervene.
Much of the Book of Alma covers Alma’s missionary efforts in the land of the Nephites, and in this week’s chapters, Alma 8-12, he meets and preaches with his principle missionary companion, Amulek. Unlike the experiences of the sons of Mosiah, Alma and Amulek’s experiences aren’t always successful in the end. Instead, they face many tribulations, have many who refuse to believe in what they teach, very similar to what our missionaries face today.
The oft-described poverty and pride cycle in the Book of Mormon means that the peoples in Zarahemla and elsewhere repeatedly have to repent, generally in response to preaching or adversity. The first few chapters of Alma are no exception. In chapters 5-7, Alma preaches repentance, urging them to experience a “mighty change” of heart, and many Church members respond, reforming their lives.
In the final chapter of Mosiah, King Mosiah and his people face the fundamental political question—what form of government to choose. After Mosiah demonstrates the potential problems with a monarchy, the people choose a more democratic form of government, under the rule of judges. As the first chief judge, Alma then discovers that even democracy faces difficulties. While many early Mormon poems dealt with political issues, the majority were reactions either to the persecutions in Missouri and Illinois or to the enforcement of anti-bigamy laws in Utah. The poem I found for this lesson is an exception to that norm.
The principal event in Mosiah 25-28, which is also beautifully and familiarly described in Alma 36, is Alma the Younger’s miraculous conversion. To capture this, I looked for a literary work in the public domain that expressed either the agony that Alma felt or the ecstasy he obtained after his acceptance of the Lord.
I think the most significant event in Mosiah 18-24 is the baptism of Alma and his followers in the Waters of Mormon. There we find the great description of the Baptismal covenant, in which those baptized …are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places… This event led me to a poem by Parley P. Pratt about Baptism, a hymn that seeks to encourage non-members to partake of the ordinance.
Perhaps the most striking part of the Book of Mormon covered in lesson 18 is the martyrdom of Abinadi. Like many martyrs who have suffered since his time, Abinadi testified of what he knew to be true only to find his testimony rejected and his life taken for it. He sealed his testimony with his life.
Often LDS lessons based on the scriptures cover such a broad range of topics in the scriptures given that the stated theme of the lesson doesn’t capture what is going on in the scripture passages. While this lesson is certainly one of those times, the poem I found is really about the stated theme of the lesson: prophets, seers and revelators. In early Mormon poetry and writings, this usually referred to one person: the Prophet Joseph Smith. Where today we talk more about prophets generally, for the first 30 years of Mormonism, the prophet mostly referred to Joseph Smith specifically. And it is in the context of Joseph Smith that we learn their ideas about what a Prophet or Seer or Revelator is.
The culmination of King Benjamin’s address to his people was the “mighty change” they experienced which led them to repent and covenant to keep the commandments and to seek to do good continually. While the scripture says that they “had no more disposition to do evil,” given the later history of this people, we might surmise that the disposition didn’t last. Nor did Benjamin expect that his people would remain sinless, but instead they would likely need a disposition to seek and obtain forgiveness. I suspect that one aspect of the “mighty change” described in the Book of Mormon is exactly that, seeking forgiveness for errors and sin.
King Benjamin’s oft-cited dictum that service to our fellow man is service to God is well known among Mormons. And, if surveys like the recent University of Pennsylvania survey are accurate, Mormons do quite well putting the idea in practice. Still, better than others doesn’t mean that we are where we should be or ought to be. And, like all humans, we have our rationales for failure to act. So perhaps a poem that addresses our failures will work well with Book of Mormon lesson #15.
Perhaps the most dramatic incident in gospel doctrine lesson #14 is Enos’ prayer; an example that has no doubt led many LDS Church members to wonder about their persistence and perseverance in prayer. Indeed, Enos’ story of his prayer is generally taken as a lesson in how to pray and what prayer means. It might also be said that Mormonism began with a prayer, and an answer to that prayer that came by way of a vision. That fact, as well as many other examples of prayer, is common in Mormon literature. However, few poems actually discuss the role of prayer or give the kind of lesson that Enos does.